Thursday, July 26, 2018

Projects unfinished, finished

During my sabbatical year up in Michigan I collected shotgun shells off the bottoms of some of my favorite lakes in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. As I waded these shorelines fly fishing, I gathered dozens of the plastic and metal cylindrical amalgams in varying colors: red and green 12-gauge, yellow and blue 20-guage, darker red 4.10s…even the improbably thick 10-gauge shell, black—remnants of massive firepower expended on waterfowl, the casings then left to decompose at a hyper-objective rate.

I was vaguely planning to create some sort of art piece out of these spent shells, something that would reflect on waste and gun culture while also turning this detritus of hunting into something surprising, even something weirdly aesthetic. But I could never quite get it together. The shotgun shells kept accumulating, and each time I harvested a batch I got more depressed about them. Not just about how they were cast off and left, littering the shorelines and swaying in the shallows—that was part of it—but also about how they acted as small yet vivid reminders of a more embroiled and ugly knot in contemporary U.S. culture: the perceived right to bear arms, the shootings and murders that inevitably occur every month or so, and our seemingly futile ability to address this issue in any measured or meaningful way.

I did finish other projects that year, though. I finished my book Airportness, and also put together my new book The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth, which publishes this week.

In this book I brought together a bunch of pieces I'd written about teaching literature over the years, and I framed these essays with new material that I wrote while up in Michigan. You can read an excerpt from this book at the Paris Review, and another one at Literary Hub. I answered some questions about the book for Inside Higher Ed, and I wrote a post about the book for the Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog.

These are strange and gloomy times for those of us in the humanities and language studies. So much potential for thoughtful intervention, redress, and creativity—and so much flagrant scorning of what we do, from various sectors both in and outside the academy. I hope that readers find solidarity in my new book, and maybe even a modicum of inspiration to keep doing this work. I talk to my students a lot about the importance of finishing projects, but also about letting some projects go unfinished, allowing projects to get rejected or passed over, too. I find that having multiple, overlapping (if sometimes fuzzily related) projects at any given moment helps me actually finish some things. Then, the other things can slide off into the murk of memory and time.